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Stricter faceoff rules have put some defensemen in an ‘unnatural’ position

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Well, this is awkward.

Stricter rule enforcement in the National Hockey League has led to more defensemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge – even for some of the best players in the world.

“It’s a little bit unnatural,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said. “It’s not something you see all the time. You see a D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”

Such is life for NHL defensemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice. But this season, defensemen are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory much more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol .

Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a couple of seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Blindingly fast work with sticks and leverage are key. It’s no place for bigger defensemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.

Eleven different defensemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.

“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”

Defensemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.

“It’s funny that when you get a D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman goes in there and wins a draw.”

Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defensemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?

Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus center Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned.

“The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”

Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.

Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.

“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”

Or maybe just lose it intentionally, suggested Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.

“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” Gardiner said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”

Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at:

“For a defenseman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”

In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs – until now.

“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”

Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.

After years of practicing against his brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, Stone wants to make sure he at least makes things interesting.

“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” Stone said. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”

When Washington defenseman John Carlson stepped in recently for a draw in overtime, he had a sterling record: He had won his lone NHL faceoff. But he lost this one an cursed teammates for not letting him practice faceoffs.

Even though Carlson lost his second career faceoff attempt, he scored the game-winning goal to quiet the razzing from his teammates. Hedman won his and wants his faceoff days to be over.

“Hopefully I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals vs. Rangers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington defeated the Rangers 5-2 on home ice earlier this season. Caps forward T.J. Oshie tallied two power play goals, while defenseman John Carlson notched three assists to help Washington continue their dominance over the Blueshirts.

The Capitals currently own the best record in the NHL (16-3-4 – 36 points) and have just one regulation loss in their last 16 games. Washington is averaging an NHL-best 3.74 goals per game and have scored the most goals in the league by far (86). They’ve been especially dominant on the road. Their only regulation road loss came on Oct. 10 in a 6-5 loss at Nashville, and they are currently on a nine-game road point streak. They own the best road record in the league (10-1-1).

The Rangers had an impressive 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins last week but followed that up with two disappointing losses in Florida. New York got obliterated by the Lightning on Thursday night, losing 9-3 in Tampa, and then blew a 3-2 second period lead against the Panthers on Saturday, falling 4-3 in regulation.

Mika Zibanejad will not suit up for Wednesday’s game as he is still recovering from an upper-body injury. Zibanejad has not played since suffering the injury on Oct. 27 against the Bruins. Wednesday will be his 10th consecutive game missed.

The Rangers will be getting their second-overall draft pick back after he missed the last two games with the flu. Kaapo Kakko was scratched prior to Thursday’s game against the Lighting and did not play in Saturday’s loss against the Panthers as he was still feeling ill. After a slow start to the season, Kakko has been one of New York’s top scorers as of late. The 18-year-old is coming off his first two-goal outing of his career in last week’s 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins, and he also tallied the first OT winner of his NHL career.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars Eller – T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik – Mike Sgarbossa – Travis Boyd
Beck Malenstyn – Chandler StephensonBrendan Leipsic

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris KreiderFilip ChytilPavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Tim Gettinger – Greg McKeggBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.